The Last Color Term

Early in Bluets Maggie Nelson’s narrator addresses the obvious question of “why blue” head-on:

“Why blue? People ask me this question often. I never know how to respond. We don’t get to choose what or whom we love, i want to say. We just don’t get to choose.”

Bluets, #13, P. 5 

As a reader I felt satisfied by this and moved forward with the fragmentary narrative glad that the question has at least been acknowledged, if not especially responded to.  Reflecting on this later though, a similar if somewhat different question lingered with me: from the perspective of craft, why did it have to be blue?  What would become of the project if it were, say, Violets or Marigolds or Roses?

Readers seem to frequently respond to Bluets as a break-up narrative, or more generally a narrative of loss.  But this is only one thread in the book.  Perhaps it could be more accurate to say Bluets is an enacting of several experiences — obsession, fragmentation, investigation — for which the break-up narrative is but one subject.

Given the extensive canon of blue cultural works Nelson stitches throughout, it’s difficult not to see the focus that the break-up narrative holds as influenced by the presence of blue as her color of interest.  It’s almost too easy — the book about blue is about sorrow and loss!

Histories of a Word: Blue

But the word “blue” held a place of cultural and linguistic significance before it was an easy stand-in for sorrow.

In 1858 William Ewart Gladstone, a self-styled historian and dedicated reformer of prostitutes who would later become prime minister of Great Britain four separate times, published a 3 volume study of Homer.

In examining the Odyssey, Gladstone noted that Homer rarely used color terms and, when he did, they were employed inconsistently.  Most surprising though was a complete absence of the word “blue”, even when describing things that seem, to us, obviously blue:

“And jealous now of me, you gods, because I befriend a man, one I saved as he straddled the keel alone, when Zeus had blasted and shattered his swift ship with a bright lightning bolt, out on the wine-dark sea.”

—Homer, The Odyssey, Book V

Besides the sea, the only other thing Homer described as “wine-dark” was oxen.  Gladstone breaks it down for us: “The sea is blue, grey, or green.  Oxen are black, bay, or brown.”

Finally, Homer described the sky as many things (starry, copper, great), but never as blue.  Based on these findings, Gladstone concluded that ancient Greeks actually lacked the ability to perceive colors, at least to the degree that we do today:

“I conclude, then, that the organ of colour and its impressions were but partially developed among the Greeks of the heroic age.”

—William Gladstone, Studies on Homer and the Homeric Age, p. 488

This conclusion launched decades of heated color-vocabulary battles.   While many attacked Gladstone’s theory, it was soon discovered that these characteristics of Homer were hardly unique among ancient texts.

The Last Color Term

Ten years later, a philologist named Lazarus Geiger examined ancient Icelandic sagas, ancient Chinese texts, Vedic hymns, and the Bible in its original Hebrew and found that blue never occurred in any of them.

According to linguist Guy Deutcher, today we know that there is actually a consistent pattern by which languages, across cultures, acquire color terms.  It almost always proceeds in this order: 

color development

“There is some deviation, but what holds is that red is always first and blue is always last.”

—Guy Deutcher, Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages

Why this is the case remains an unsolved mystery, but In Homer’s world, blue was actually extremely rare.  Deutscher speculates you don’t need a word for a color until you can make that color.  Red is the easiest pigment to make, while blue was historically the most difficult.  For thousands of years, only Egyptians had a blue dye, and they had a word for blue.

Perceiving Blue/Seeing Blue

But the absence of a word for blue is not simply a linguistic concern; the language category actually affects perception of the color.

Jules Davidoff, a professor of psychology at Goldsmiths college in London, has studied the Himba tribe in Namibia who speak Otjihimba:

 “The Himba tribe from northern Namibia does not classify green and blue separately, the way Westerners do, but it does differentiate among various shades of what we call green.  When tested, members of the tribe, who are likely to have trouble with blue-green distinctions that most Westerners make easily, readily distinguish among greens that tend to look the same to Western eyes.”

—New York Times, It’s Not Easy Seeing Green

When Davidoff showed the following image to Himba people, they had no trouble identifying the outlier.

Can you tell which square is different?  Click here for the answer.

Meanwhile, when shown an image similar to the following, the Himba struggled to identify which was different:

The difference here is not physiological; it is linguistic.  Davidoff theorizes that the Himba brain is conditioned to easily identify the different square in the first image thanks to their linguistic color categories.  They are not, however, conditioned to identify the difference in the second.  Conversely, as English speakers, we struggle with the first, but handle the second with ease.

This phenomenon is true of other colors as well.  Speakers of Russian, for instance, have no base word for “blue.”  Rather they have a word for what we would call “light blue” and another for what we would call “dark blue.”  When asked to distinguish between light blues and dark blues, native Russian speakers did so significantly faster than native English speakers.

Back to Bluets

It seems reasonable to suggest that Maggie Nelson is not directly responding to blue’s unique linguistic position as the latest arriving color term.  As she explicitly and implicitly “leans against” a network of natural and artificial blues, she interacts primarily with more recent baggage.  But, particularly with an artist such as Nelson who advocates for a “land of wild associations,” the linguistic history of blue and its perceptual consequences seep in and stain the work.

On some level Bluets performs a subjective experience.  In reading it perhaps our own worlds are tinted by Nelson’s gels.  Perhaps we even become aware of this.  It is convenient and instructive then that the color selected as the source of a great obsession also serves to illustrate one of humanity’s most deeply-seated sources of subjective difference: the shape of the world through the language we receive.

Sources & More Information:

This article was shaped by a lecture by Zed Adams.  I reached out to Prof. Adams asking if any of his content was online or in print but have not heard back.  If I do I will update this post.

Radiolab has an excellent episode covering most of this material:

Here is an excellent BBC television program discussing color vocabulary.  This clip includes footage of Davidoff’s research assistant administering color tests to Himba tribespeople:

BBC – Color is in the Eye of the Beholder

The Nation also published an excellent description:

Here is a PDF of Through the Language Glass by Guy Deutcher

For more rigorous treatment of this material, look here:

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